The name Anita Dongre is synonymous with a sprawling fashion empire built upon a righteous path of mindfulness and sustainability. And mind you, not the tokenism fuelled chatter, unlike the many who’ve greenwashed everything like there’s no tomorrow. So much so, that her work headquarters located in Rabale, Navi Mumbai corroborate every point to the T. From an in-house sewage treatment plant to a strategic building design that minimizes the need to use ACs, the building is nothing less than a step into the future. Even the water faucets there are fitted with aerator fixtures that save 60-70% water. Dedication towards one’s virtues to such an extent is a rarity but not impossible and Anita Dongre further solidifies this very notion by practising what she preaches.
ELLE: As a brand, you’ve been practising mindful fashion for as long as I can remember, but to build an entire headquarter that is constructed on a sustainable principle, tell us a little about that?
Anita Dongre (AD): We started from cramped small spaces, because we couldn’t afford larger spaces. So it was always a desire to work from a beautiful building and a space that we’ve designed on our own. And obviously, when I say a space designed on our own, sustainability is the most important factor for us. And hence, we moved out of Bombay to Navi Mumbai and acquired this piece of land and then constructed our building there, which is sustainable. The process of the building took two to three years and three and a half to four years for the whole project. And now, there are about 750 people who work from there. It’s igreen, eco-friendly and a labour of love—I’m grateful for working in a place like this.
ELLE: Tell us the different ways in which the Anita Dongre headquarter is beneficial for the environment?
AD: It’s got a lot of open spaces, there are three buildings joined together by these bridges, which are your breakout areas. Sustainable is basically working with the environment—there’s a lot of natural light and flow of air. The walls facing the South are double cavity walls to block the heat, it’s designed keeping the weather in mind. We recycle all the water in the building. We have a composting pit for all food waste and have a small garden on the terrace where we grow some vegetables. We’ve covered the entire area with trees and plants, it’s really beautiful. There are lots of flowering trees that we planted around the periphery which are now grown—all the balconies and all the windows are full of bougainvillaeas. It actually looks more like a holiday place than a workplace—we have bougainvillaeas streaming from every floor. It’s a clean, serene and it faces these hills, which in themselves are spectacular. Nature envelopes the space from everywhere and that amplifies the overall appeal of this place. It’s very scenic and pretty and it’s worth the drive to go there every day.
ELLE: Sustainability has become a buzzword in fashion, that is used as a marketing gimmick now, how can a consumer differentiate between labels who are actually walking the talk as opposed to the tokenistic approach?
AD: Well, customers themselves have to be really sharp, because it’s difficult to tell, like you rightly said, everybody uses that word today. Consumers need to go beyond that, they need to look at the brand and see if the brand’s founders are practising the same values. It’s not easy, it takes a very knowledgeable customer to know the difference, but it’s worth the effort. I feel that even brands who are just using the words for the sake of it, will hopefully start implementing those changes themselves, because it is the need of the hour. There is no planet B to fall back on.
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ELLE: Like you rightfully said that it’s not easy for the customer to identify, what would be the few key pointers a customer could look out for when they’re shopping from a brand? What could be the key factors they should look into?
AD: Look for the labour and for the fabric contents. Just don’t get fooled by anything on social media, dive deep into the website and actually read some more to discover the truth. ‘Read the fine print’ is what I say. If there’s a garment, it’s important to go into it intimately and actually read what fibres are they selling. You can’t make a polyester tight and say that this is a sustainable brand.
ELLE: What are the different ways in which the brand Anita Dongre contributes toward sustainability, in terms of waste management, fibre/fabric selections and artisan-led initiatives?
AD: The largest input into a garment is the fabric, right? So we are making the fabric that we use and then the embellishments that we use. For me, there are two aspects of sustainability—one is our environmental sustainability and the second one, which is really important to me is social sustainability. In environmental sustainability, we are making a conscious effort that all the fabrics that we use are sustainable themselvesand we are working with manufacturers of fabrics of large companies who practise this ideology. There are many vendors but we choose to support them over the others and that covers as environmental sustainability. For social sustainability, we make a very conscious effort to work with artisans in rural India on as many collections as possible.
So today, we’re working with almost 8 to 10 clusters all over the country. For stitching, we have units that we work with, ones that are in rural areas in Maharashtra. The idea is to take work back to the villages of India which forms a part of the social system. Sometimes we make collections specifically for artisans and we don’t even follow seasonal collections for artists and groups. We actually work in tandem with the artisan groups and provide them work throughout the year. If you’re working with artisan groups like Sewa in Gujarat, you can’t predict your production timelines. It’s not that they’re factories that are churning out goods, where you know that this is a set number of pieces that you get every day. If an artisan cluster calls us and says they don’t have work, we actually create it specifically for them.
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ELLE: Moving forward, what are the few pointers you’d like to share with as consumers who’d like to become more conscious about their fashion practices?
AD: For a consumer, it’s very simple. If someone’s buying a cotton garment, they can look at the label, whether it’s organic cotton, or at least if it’s BCI cotton. BCI cotton is a mark from Better Cotton Initiative, where the cotton is sourced fairly and there are certain sustainable practices that they certify are being used in the manufacturing of the cotton. So, one needs to look for those certifications. One must buy fabrics that are hand woven. If someone wants to support social sustainability, then I always urge all consumers to buy a few garments every season that are handwoven or hand crafted by rural artisans. There are so many organisations making beautiful collections that are hand embroidered in rural India which can be purchased. This will promote social sustainability and it is the only way forward for us.
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ELLE: What about the designers? How can they start their journey on the sustainable route
AD: I think today, a lot of the young designers are already very conscious. They just need to be aware of what fabrics they’re using and look into packaging. Everyone needs to start thinking about how environmental friendly are my raw materials and how are my practices affecting the planet? They can start with even a small percentage and build that up. It’s not going to be something that happens overnight. Even today, we are not 100%, but it’s at least an effort we keep trying every season to better ourselves from the previous ones. Definitely an ongoing effort.
ELLE: Certain changes you’d like to implement for betterment of the environment or become more sustainable?
AD: That’s such a loaded question, there’s so much one can do. I feel strongly about so many issues. The sky’s the limit with what one can do in a country where we’re growing so fast and at the same time I think I don’t want us to grow at the cost of not living sustainably. I think the way India lives in its villages is more sustainable, and there’s so much we can learn from them.
ELLE: If you could give me a few points about the things that are at the top of your head.
AD: I think small things that consumers can do today, even if it’s not fashion related and just generally simple things like composting their waste and making sure whatever they are buying is either sustainably disposed or donated outdoors to a charity. Make sure you’re not just dumping them and adding it to the landfill. I like the fact that there are a lot of sites that are promoting resale and circular fashion. It’s an important conversation. Young people are opting to do that, which I think is a great trend. Living mindfully, everyone should look around them and make sure they’re not wasting, whether it’s wasting water or resources of any kind. Minimising waste in life is important for everyone to start living a more conscious life. This will be a good place to start for everyone.
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